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Not set for Indy yet? Try a go-kart

On Wheels

A lot of people say they would like to try auto racing but figure they never could afford it. Racing a full-size car is expensive and time-consuming, you usually need a trailer and a tow vehicle, and the maintenance costs can be staggering.

But who says you need a full-size car? You can go racing in a go-kart for about the price of dinner and a movie.

Over the past 10 years, indoor kart racing has turned into big business worldwide. Indoor racing centers have done what outdoor karting tracks never quite achieved - they've turned the old lawnmower-powered karts into real race cars.

The phenomenon has been repeated all over the United States and throughout Europe and Latin America. Austrian drivers won the first two world championships, and this year's title went to Rodrigo Faulhaber of Brazil.

'The Brazilians and Europeans are always the guys to beat,' says Mike Smith of Sykart Indoor Racing Center in Tigard.

Smith finished fifth in the 2007 Indoor Kart World Championships in Phoenix. He was the top American.

The indoor kart racing formula is simple. Take a large space like a warehouse and make a tight, twisting track out of low barriers. The karts are basic, single-speed machines with 6.5- or 9-horsepower gasoline engines -each virtually identical. In a typical race, 10 to 20 drivers compete, about the same number as in other racing series.

Anyone with a valid driver's license can walk in and try racing at an indoor karting center. If you're under 16, parental permission and a racing class are required. The racing center will loan you a helmet and a pair of coveralls, and they take care of the karts, too.

Sykart has racing leagues in different classes and for different age groups. A team championship is based on the average performance of any three drivers.

The league meets Monday nights from Feb. 4 through March 24. The top five drivers in each class advance to a championship shootout on March 31. Each race lasts about half an hour.

'We get 30 to 40 drivers in the series,' Smith says. 'The youngest is 12, the oldest is in his 50s. About half our drivers are over 40.'

It costs $35 to register and $30 per week in track fees for Sykart members. For information, go to www.sykart.com.

'The premise of the series is fun, sportsmanship and camaraderie,' Smith says. 'It's basically just a bunch of people who love racing.'